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Space for you and space for me: on Chimamanda Adichie’s essay

Chimamanda Adichie   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In a 2017 interview, Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie said, “A transwoman is a transwoman.” Taken by itself, it sounds reasonable — celebrating difference would mean not subsuming transwomen again within the man-woman binary. Unfortunately, the sentence was not a throwaway one — Adichie also said that transwomen start off life with “male privileges”, and later went on to support JK Rowling’s controversial views on transwomen.

Despite Adichie’s clarifications, that she meant transwomen’s experiences are different from women’s, her stance has been suspect and she has been labelled a Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist or TERF, someone wanting to exclude transwomen from women’s spaces.

The essay Adichie published last week is mostly a defence against her critics, but it’s also a condemnation of the tenor of public debate. Although the piece has been criticised for shifting the spotlight away from transphobia and on to social-media hypocrisy, I believe there are two threads in it and each can be examined, without losing the other.

Regarding transwomen, Adichie reiterates her support for their rights, and says, “We should be able to acknowledge differences while being fully inclusive.” How transwomen activists respond to this is for them to say. I will stick to the essay’s social media commentary.

Adichie focusses on two of her detractors and her feelings of betrayal. Of one of them she says, “I had a personal relationship with her. She could have emailed or called or texted me. Instead, she went on social media…” One can dismiss this, ask if personal hurt is more important than the larger politics around the issue, but that would overlook the strident intolerance that passes for politics these days. Without personal integrity and adherence to smaller, individual truths and fidelities, one’s public political persona and credo become a largely dishonest construct.

Calling someone out in public is easy and conspicuous, but choosing not to is a mark of grace, a quality conspicuously absent in public discourse. On social media, one is perhaps inured to what Adichie calls “the hostility of strangers,” but from friends and acquaintances it is not wrong to expect a call or email expressing frank disagreement. After that, one may part ways, but to willingly choose public attack over private argument signals less political conviction and more a grandstanding for visibility.

Calm, private discussions are even more important when the issues are fraught, such as language and identity issues. One of Adichie’s severest critics is Nigerian novelist Akwaeke Emezi, who identifies as non-binary, neither male nor female. Given this, in which context would it be offensive to include Emezi as ‘woman’ and in which context not? Many of us don’t know, many are learning, still gathering the blocks to erect socially just structures. It is merely days since Kiwi weightlifter Laurel Hubbard has become the first trans athlete to be included in an Olympics contest. She will participate in the women’s team, but for that she had to first test with testosterone levels below 10 nanomoles per litre. Arriving here has taken years of negotiation, against prejudices but also against qualms that transwomen will have a physical edge over other women.

Language and identity are contested spaces and constantly evolving. We need conversations around them, as around existential questions of rights and livelihoods of all marginalised groups. Social justice cannot be reached only via publicly performed outrage, even though, yes, this is a narcissistic age, and everything from love to lunches is put up on display.

Some aspects trouble me especially about public outrage — one is how easily small, individual dishonesties are accepted in the support of a larger cause. I believe this corrupts the very heart of justice. Second, the annihilating language of rage and violence, whose primary goal is not to understand or be understood but to silence. If aggression is all we have to offer at a time when issues of social, gender, political and economic equity are at stake like seldom before, we are impoverished indeed.

What Adichie calls “the false gauziness of ideological purity” covers an ulcer of intolerance ravaging social commentary today, its translucence failing to hide the festering lack of humanism underneath. But without empathy and compassion and ordinary, everyday kindness, we are nothing, less than nothing, and ideology alone is not going to make us whole again.

Where the writer tries to make sense of society with seven hundred words and a bit of snark.

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 12:31:55 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/space-for-you-and-space-for-me-on-chimamanda-adichies-essay/article34961763.ece

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